EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS Movie Review – The Dark Hebrew Rises
Practically a beat-for-beat remake of Cecil B. DeMille’s last film, The Ten Commandments, sans the camp value that made and continues to make DeMille’s film a holiday classic, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Ridley Scott’s obvious attempt to repeat his fifteen-year-old Gladiator success, offers many of Scott’s strengths as a filmmaker, namely his skills as a visual stylist, and just as many of his weaknesses, to wit, his dramatic skills (or lack thereof). Bearing all the signs (minus the portents) of a typically compromised, big-budget blockbuster hopeful, up to and including Caucasian actors in key leading roles, Exodus: Gods and Kings may or may not anger members of a key segment of the intended audience (specifically true believers), but it’s as likely to be met with indifference from everyone else. After all, outside of Scott and the producers who financed Exodus: Gods and Kings, no one wanted, let alone needed, yet another remake or retelling of the overly familiar Exodus story.
To Scott’s minor credit, Exodus: Gods and Kings doesn’t waste time with Moses’ (Christian Bale) pre-adult origins. When we meet Moses, he’s already a well-respected general and trusted advisor to the Pharaoh, Seti (John Turturro). He’s also a loyal friend, confidante, and protector to Ramses II (Joel Edgerton), Seti’s son and the presumptive heir to the throne. Their relationship may be close, but it’s not without conflict or jealousies, the latter primarily on Ramses’ part. He implicitly recognizes Moses’ natural leadership skills and just as naturally feels threatened. It’s made all the worse by a troublesome prophecy that foretells a leader-savior will emerge from an upcoming battle with the neighboring Hittites. Ramses clearly sees Moses as that leader and thus a potential future threat, briefly considering eliminating Moses on the battlefield.
If that conflict sounds familiar, it should. It’s both at the center of The Ten Commandments and more explicitly, at the center of Gladiator, with Moses as Maximus, Ramses as Commodus, and Seti as Marcus Aurelius. Not surprisingly, the death of Seti signals not just Ramses’ ascension to the throne, but an inexorable shift in power, leaving Moses in a precarious position. All it takes is the revelation of Moses’ true parentage as the son of Hebrew slaves for Ramses to send Moses into near certain death and exile. Moses doesn’t perish, of course, eventually becoming a member of a free tribe of monotheists (they worship the one true god), marrying Zipporah (María Valverde), the daughter of a local sheep- and goat-herder, becoming a father, and entering into an extended period if domestic tranquility and bliss.
God, however, has other plans for Moses. Or maybe it’s just Moses, recovering from a traumatic brain injury after a rockslide, who’s conjuring up God in the form of a petulant child, Malak (Isaac Andrews), who pushes a seemingly unwilling, hesitant Moses onto the path that inexorably leads to the Hero’s Journey. Malak’s childlike nature, by turns, cruel, capricious, and arbitrary, might just be Exodus: God and Kings’ most significant departure from the Old Testament and the more traditional depiction of God as a disembodied voice and a burning bush. It’s just as likely to cause consternation (or worse) among a certain subset of true believers (e.g., evangelicals) who will see any departure or deviation from their particular interpretation of the Old Testament as nothing less than blasphemy. Obviously, Scott had (and has) little interest in assuaging their particular concerns. He not only depicts God as a child, but also frequently cuts away from Moses’ point-of-view to show nothing but empty air.
Eschewing the supernatural for the natural, Scott explains away the ten plagues that devastate Egypt, eventually ending with Ramses’ acquiescence in freeing the Hebrews before the inevitable change-of-mind and the days-long chase of the fleeing ex-slaves across the Red Sea — here the Red Sea doesn’t part so much as recede, making passage difficult, but not impossible — and the completely expected CG tidal wave of fury and/or wrath of the natural or supernatural variety. While Red Sea scene delivers the requisite spectacle, it never rises to the level of awe and wonder present in the majority of the earlier scenes. By then, it’s just as obvious Scott has segued into wrap-up mode, briefly slipping into the obligatory carving of the Ten Commandments scene, with God serving Moses tea and gently whispering in Moses’ ear, before jumping ahead one last time to an elderly, exhausted-looking Moses, his lifelong mission accomplished, ready for whatever rewards await him in the afterlife. Moviegoers might just feel similarly.